The Ghostly Sound Of The Theremin

Jun 23, 2014

Even if you’re not familiar with the musical instrument called the theremin, chances are you’ve heard its ghostly sound. The theremin is unique because of how it’s played: you make music without touching it. Theremin player Jon Bernhardt discusses the instrument and plays some music for Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer.



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Even if you're not familiar with the musical instrument called the theremin, chances are you've heard it. It's featured in "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin.


PFEIFFER: And a theremin-like instrument, sometimes called the electro-theremin is used for one of the signature parts of "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys.


THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) I'm picking up good vibrations. She's giving me excitations. I'm picking up good vibrations. Good vibrations.

PFEIFFER: The theremin is unique because of how it's played and exactly how that's done is being demonstrated by theremin players around the country as part of book tour by Montreal writer Sean Michaels. Sean has a new novel out called "Us Conductors" about the inventor of the theremin. And when Sean visited Boston this weekend he was accompanied by Somerville, Massachusetts, theremin player John Bernhardt who also joined me in our studios with his theremin. I asked him to explain what makes the theremin unusual and how it works.

JOE BERNHARDT: It's unusual in that it's an instrument to play without actually touching it. Typically it's a box of some sort with two antenna that comes out of either side. One antenna controls the pitch and the other antenna controls the volume and as you move your hands closer and further away from these two antennae control you the sound of the instrument.

PFEIFFER: So you're moving your hands to make the music - your hands through the air. How much control do you have over how it sounds?

BERNHARDT: You have a lot of control over the pitch and the volume. It's just - it's very difficult. It's very sensitive to your body movement. You could wiggle your pinky and the pitch could change by a major third. You could go from an open fist to a closed fist and you could be changing the pitch by an octave.

PFEIFFER: The best way to understand this probably is to hear you play it. Could you demonstrate on your theremin how you do this? And explain what you're doing as you do it?

BERNHARDT: Sure thing.


BERNHARDT: The problem with this is the microphone actually affects the pitches as well. So we have to be careful of how close microphone is. As my hand moves closer to the antenna the pitch gets higher. As I move my hand away from the antenna the pitch gets lower. And similarly with the volume - as the hand moves away from the volume antenna the pitch will get louder. And as it gets closer to the volume antenna the pitch get softer until it's silent. And by manipulating these two antennae you can play melodies like...


PFEIFFER: You've demonstrated some of the sounds. Could you actually play a song or melody we might recognize?

BERNHARDT: Sure, yeah.


PFEIFFER: John, that was George Gershwin's "Summertime" and that backtrack was prerecorded. Those were other instruments that you are accompanying with your theremin.

BERNHARDT: Yes, yeah. The theremin can't make those sounds.

PFEIFFER: Also with us by phone is Sean Michaels the Montreal writer who's new novel "Us Conductors" is about the inventor of the theremin. Sean, welcome to show.

SEAN MICHAELS: It's my great pleasure.

PFEIFFER: Sean, do you play the theremin as well?

MICHAELS: I do own a couple of theremins but although I like to say that any warm-blooded human being can make a sound on a theremin - but unfortunately I can't do much better than that.

PFEIFFER: Anyone could do it because you just have to move your hands in front of the instrument?

MICHAELS: Yeah as long as your body conducts electricity. In fact, you probably don't have to be human.

PFEIFFER: Can you make a song? Can make a melody on it at this point?

MICHAELS: I can play a version of happy birthday. That's probably roughly comprehensible as happy birthday if someone has a cake.


PFEIFFER: Some people describe the sound of the theremin as kind of ghostly or a little sci-fi. Is that how you interpret it Sean?

MICHAELS: Yeah I do hear that. Like, where is that sound coming from? It's kind of a floating emanation or something.

BERNHARDT: I will say on more than one occasion when I've played the theremin people don't believe that it's the instrument. They think I'm humming, you know, secretly.

PFEIFFER: It is heard in many sci-fi movies - does that tend to be where it appears a lot?

BERNHARDT: That's what most people know it from, certainly. Inevitably you hear that Wu kind of sound and people instantly identify with the sci-fi movies.

PFEIFFER: John is there anything you want to play us out on on your theremin?

BERNHARDT: (Laughing) I could do something very, very different. That might entertain you.



PFEIFFER: That of course is "Video Killed The Radio Star" played on a theremin by Massachusetts thereminist John Bernhardt. John, thanks for coming in.

BERNHARDT: Thanks for having me again Sasha.

PFEIFFER: And John played his theremin as part of a book tour by Montreal writer Sean Michaels who has a new novel out called "Us Conductors" about the inventor of the theremin. Sean, thanks to you too.


PFEIFFER: HERE AND NOW is the production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Sasha Pfeiffer.


I'm Jerry Hobson. I'm going to keep this short so we can hear more of this. This is HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEREMIN) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.